The Interventionist Itch

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs just released its 2015 survey documenting American foreign policy attitudes. Entitled “America Divided: Political Partisanship and U.S. Foreign Policy,” the Council’s report emphasizes the stark disagreements between Republicans and Democrats over foreign policy goals and the means for achieving them. While there are certainly important differences between the two camps, there is a dangerous underlying consensus today that unites left and right: Americans of all stripes suffer from an “interventionist itch.” With respect to fighting terrorism and the Islamic State, Americans are far too supportive of the kinds of military intervention that have proved ineffective and counterproductive in the past.

As 9/11 receded and the war in Iraq descended in to insurgency, Americans became less interested in having the United States play an active role in world affairs and more wary of military intervention. Over the past year, however, as concerns have mounted over the Islamic State, so has the public’s willingness to support various measures to combat terrorism. Drawing on the CCGA survey, Table One reveals public support across party lines for a host of interventionist activities. In addition, the CCGA report notes, a majority of Americans would support cyberattacks and airstrikes (though not the use of ground troops) against Iran should Iran renege on the nuclear agreement.

American Support for Military Intervention: In order to combat international terrorism, please say whether you favor or oppose each of the following measures (% favor)*






US air strikes against terrorist training camps and other facilities





Using drone strikes to assassinate individual terrorist leaders





Assassination of individual terrorist leaders





Attacks by US ground troops against terrorist training camps and other facilities





Providing military assistance to Arab governments to combat violent Islamic extremists groups





Keeping some US troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016 for training and counterterrorism





These figures suggest several sobering conclusions. First, they clearly indicate a stable interventionist consensus that includes both obvious advocates (Republicans) and less obvious advocates (Democrats and even Independents). Such a consensus is somewhat surprising considering all evidence from the past 14 years of intervention makes clear just how poorly such tactics have worked and because the public has repeatedly come to oppose the interventions they previously favored after they prove ineffective. On the other hand, the presence of this consensus is understandable given the interventionist agendas of the Bush and Obama administrations and the vocal support from both Republican and Democratic leaders for more intervention of various kinds.

Second, the consensus illustrates the degree to which the threat of terrorism has come to dominate the U.S. conversation about national security. The 2015 CCGA study finds no increase in support for the use of military force to aid Taiwan, or Israel, or South Korea. But terrorism, even 14 years after 9/11, remains a lighting rod capable of inducing overheated rhetoric and overheated fears.

Finally, these figures indicate that interventionist cries from the candidates will find a receptive audience as we approach the 2016 elections. All of the Republican candidates (Rand Paul aside) as well as Hillary Clinton have staked out positions arguing for more intervention. There is thus every reason to believe that the United States will find itself further entangled in the Middle East in the near future.

*Source: Chicago Council on Global Affairs, “America Divided,” 2015.